Hands-On Robotics

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In Spring 2014 the Duderstadt Center's Design Lab 1 did a feature video about our class

As seniors and beginning graduate students, you have probably had plenty of courses where you sit in a classroom and watch a professor talk next to a projector screen or board. He or she talks about important theoretical concepts which seem only remotely related to what they are supposed to be useful for, and it is really hard to stay awake and relate the abstract symbols to the real world.

However, the theory of robotics and control doesn't have to be like that! Robots are real, physical devices which we can feel and interact with in the world. The theory is there because generations of engineers have discovered that the quantitative modeling and control of robots requires this theory. Of course they may have been wrong; there may be a better way; a more innovative way. When building physical devices, the final arbiter of correctness is success at performing the desired task, together with the accumulation of knowledge that allows us to do even better next time.

This philosophy is the core of Hands-On Robotics. You will be given tasks. You will be given modular robot parts, and taught techniques that allow you to build robots from these parts. You will also be introduced to some theory -- so that you know what's out there to learn, that engineers before you found useful for accomplishing these sorts of tasks. Then you will have to design, model and build a robot to accomplish the task. You don't have to succeed at every task to get an A (in fact, I expect some of you to fail at the tasks). What you do have to do is produce a well thought out design which meets some minimal performance criteria, write a lab report which accounts in a quantitative way for how well your robot did, and submit some individual work such as quizzes and reviews of the work of other teams. Even if your robot fails at the task a well thought out report will get an A.

Course format

This will be a lab course. We will meet twice a week, Monday and Wednesday 12:00-2:00 in the Design Lab 1 room of the Duderstadt Center. Work will be done in teams, the size of which will depend on enrollment (historically, this has been 4-5 students). Team composition will be assigned to ensure a broad spectrum of skills is available in every team. Teams will be changed between projects.

There will be some lecture content in the class, and you will be quizzed with several short (15 minute) online quizzes on this material. Half the lab periods will be devoted to your projects - either presenting them, or demonstrating that you have reached some development milestone. The other half will be a combination of lecture and working on your robots. For the most part, teams will work independently, and have access to the lab and equipment at additional hours. In addition, each of you will be responsible for reviewing another team's work. Part of your individual grade will depend on filling a review form for that team's work. You will not be grading them - instead I will be using your online review forms for assessing your ability to see the strengths and weaknesses in the work of other teams.

The course will consist of a short project followed by two longer ones. Each project will follow the same overall structure (as explained in detail in project cycle):

  1. You will be given a task specifications
  2. Your team will do some Brainstorming and background research, and present your ideas
  3. You will need to demo the ability to meet certain partial task milestones as you build your robot
  4. On the "Project Day" (P-day), all robots will compete on performing the task
  5. Your project reports will be due the next class